TERRE HAUTE —
The future tends to sneak up on you.
Planning for it offers no guarantees, but it helps.
In a handful of places, people can walk, run or bike across the Wabash River on bridges used exclusively for those activities.
The term “handful” is accurate. “The bridges specifically for walking across the Wabash are few and far between,” said Scott Elzey, the Bluffton representative on the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission. He would know. In 2010, Elzey and three cohorts visited all 146 bridges along the river’s 474.7-mile course.
Fort Recovery, Ohio, where the Wabash originates, features a modest footbridge over the creek-like stream. Across the Indiana border, the northern Indiana town of Bluffton — population 9,897 — received a pedestrian bridge in 2006, built by the State of Indiana to provide a safer option for people who routinely walked alongside cars and trucks on a nearby vehicular-traffic span. The broad John T. Myers Bridge, which links downtown Lafayette with West Lafayette, was converted to pedestrian-only use from its original purpose, for vehicular traffic.
Two years ago, Peru joined the list. Preparation and fortunate timing helped that Miami County town of 12,000 residents.
There, an old railroad bridge — originally constructed in the mid-1800s and out of use since the 1990s — was renovated into a pedestrian bridge in 2011. The town had a plan in place for the transformation, seeking state funds, but those resources had not materialized, explained Mike Kuepper, a Peru businessman.
The future arrived ahead of schedule.
In 2010, with its plan meeting the necessary “shovel-ready” status for federal stimulus funds, Peru got approval for its $900,000-plus bridge conversion project through an Indiana Department of Transportation grant. Work began in the spring of 2011 to turn the 600-foot-long train trestle into a footbridge, with a 16-foot-wide concrete floor and handrails. It opened that October.
The bridge allowed Miami County to connect the north and south segments of the Nickel Plate Trail, a nearly 40-mile path on the bed of the former Norfolk Southern Railroad line. The Wabash, which runs through Peru, separated the 14-mile southern Nickel Plate Trail stretch from its 21-mile northern continuation. Though the urban portion of the trail isn’t complete, pedestrians and cyclists can navigate the Peru streets to keep going on the Nickel Plate.
“Before the bridge was open, it would almost be like there in West Terre Haute and Terre Haute,” said Kuepper, who lived in Terre Haute as an Indiana State University student from 1970 to ’74. “If you wanted to be on the trail [in Peru], you just about had to drive to the other side.”
Many Peru residents who initially bristled at the plan, fearing the bridge would invite littering and mischief, quickly became supporters, Kuepper recalled.
“Once they see what it is, it’s the opposite of their perceptions,” he said.
Terre Haute lacks a pedestrian bridge across the Wabash. The idea has been envisioned. Five Rose-Hulman civil engineering students designed a 130-foot-tall, 20-foot-wide, 630-foot-long footbridge for Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc., a local nonprofit group behind the Riverscape initiative to “transform our riverfront.” Their design, presented to city and Vigo County officials in May 2007, had an estimated cost of $4.5 million at the time. Various federal grants, especially through the river’s proximity to the Historic National Road, were considered possible.
Within months, the unforgiving Great Recession began, shrinking budgets in American households and communities, scrapping or delaying aspirations.
The concept for a pedestrian path across the Wabash remains a goal, “probably long-term,” Fred Nation, a Riverscape board member, said last week. Its need is strong for basic transportation on foot or by bicycle, as well as for recreational purposes, not a safe option on the twin, vehicular-traffic river spans — the westbound Paul Dresser Memorial Bridge and the eastbound Theodore Dreiser Memorial Bridge.
The opportunity for Terre Haute to convert a retired traffic bridge for pedestrian use, as in Lafayette and Peru, probably was lost with the demise of the old U.S. 40 Bridge. That two-lane structure opened in 1905 and handled countless travelers until the $9.8-million Dresser and Dreiser bridges replaced it in 1992. After the new bridges went up, the U.S. 40 Bridge — aging and worn — closed and was demolished.
Notably, the U.S. 40 Bridge — like the proposed Wabash pedestrian bridge — emerged from Rose-Hulman. The old bridge was designed by Malverd Howe, a Rose Polytechnic Institute (the college’s former name) architecture and civil engineering professor. On the day of its dedication, Oct. 17, 1905, the emcee of the ceremony, Claude Bowers — a future U.S. ambassador to Spain and Chile — praised the long-term impact of the project, which is worth remembering in the 21st century. Bowers addressed those who might consider the bridge’s $271,000 pricetag “opulent.”
“We have not built for ourselves alone,” Bowers said nearly 108 years ago. “We have built for the future, and future generations will rise up and call us blessed because we have built so wisely and so well.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.